From Gibbon To Pocock

The Decline and Fall author has a worthy successor

“It was in the Piazza Paganica at Rome, in the month of January 1976, that the idea of writing a book with the present title first started to my mind.” Just over two centuries after Gibbon had the idea for Decline and Fall while musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, another English historian, J.G.A. Pocock, had a similar epiphany in the offices of the Enciclopedia Italiana. Pocock decided to write a book on Gibbon’s epic. He took his theme and title from one of Gibbon’s drier understatements: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.”

Pocock has written six volumes of Barbarism and Religion. The last, Triumph In The West (CUP, £55) tracing Gibbon’s cycle to the fall of Rome in AD 456, will be published in April, just after Pocock’s 91st birthday. In the age of the micro-monograph and the hair-splitter, Pocock has created a masterpiece of intellectual history, massive in scale and erudite in detail. He is, in my view, the English-speaking world’s greatest living historian.

Pocock is not a prophet without honour in Britain, but he should be better known. Born in London, he was raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. He returned to Britain to take his doctorate at Cambridge, but resumed teaching in New Zealand, then left for the United States. In 1975, he settled at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. At Cambridge, Pocock had studied with Herbert Butterfield, whose diagnosis of Whiggish optimism has percolated into our political vocabulary. Pocock became a master analyst of this kind of process. His method, self-evident in the way of all brilliant and timely ideas, is “texts in contexts”. To understand a work of political thought, we must know its social setting, and its “political language”, its assumptions and meanings.

Aided by his followers in the Cambridge School, Pocock revolutionised the history of ideas, and mapped the roots of the Anglosphere. His first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), showed how 17th-century thinkers drew on the political language of common law. His second, The Machiavellian Moment (1975), traced the language of civic humanism from Machiavelli’s Florence to Puritan England, and thence to colonial America. In the New World, a commercial society transformed Classical ideas of virtue and republic into a democratic ideal for the upwardly mobile.

In Barbarism and Religion, Pocock unpicks the languages of Enlightenment law, religion, and history. Pocock’s Gibbon is no French philosophe: he inherits the English “conservative Enlightenment”, in which Christianity is part of civic religion. Although Gibbon was an unbeliever, his notorious chapters on the origins of Christianity are not an atheist’s polemic. They are a “prehistory”, contextualising Constantine’s union of the Roman empire with the Christian church.

That politicising of religion, Pocock writes, fostered a “great argument between imperial and ecclesiastical authority, and between secular and sacred history”: the great argument of Gibbon’s day, and ours. For Pocock as for Gibbon, civic virtue, the ancient defence against barbarism and religion, is the modern defence too.

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